Translated an opinion piece (note that Willfanyi does not support the opinion of the article and does not comment publicly about the documentary)
为什么《穹顶之下》没有说服我？Why ‘Under the Dome’ Didn't Convince Me
First of all I’d like to say that I’m not here to heap criticism on ‘Under the Dome’. Actually, I think that Chai Jing did a great job. She covered everything very well and structured her narrative in a clear and engaging way. Organising the data and interviews in such a way as to clearly communicate a message to the viewers must have been extremely difficult, and if there was a hall of fame for Chinese documentaries, this should be in it. But when I step back and look at the documentary, which by the way I found it very challenging and/or heart-rending to watch, I wouldn’t say I was necessarily persuaded. For when you look at the issue in a rational, economic way, i.e. not like Chai Jing whose dislike of smog is on the level of a personal vendetta, there are reasons to question some of the documentary's conclusions.
So, basically, how harmful is smog/thick air pollution? In fact, there’s not a clear scientific consensus. Chai Jing quoted some research from a previous Health Minister, Chen Zhu, who estimated that air pollution kills about 500,000 people in China per year (actually in his original findings Chen said it was a maximum of 500,000, 350,000 to 500,000). The reality is that it was a ballpark figure. The science can’t give us something more specific at the moment, and so I’m not sure how seriously we can take these high death toll figures.
The whole ‘PM 2.5’ phenomenon is also a relatively recent development. For quite some time there was no particular focus on these tiny particles as being especially cancer-causing, until 2013 when Zhong Nanshang announced that air pollution was increasing rates of lung cancer, which got him a public reprimanding from Fang Zhouzi. But these particles have only been classified as particularly cancerous since late 2013 by the IARC, an international cancer research institute, based on some recent findings.
In any case, this research was undertaken in the West. No places in the West experience PM 2.5 like China does, and typically China would have several times, maybe dozens of times more PM 2.5 in the air than anywhere in these Western countries. According to one researcher’s estimation (Turner), you get a 15-27% higher chance of getting lung cancer for every 10 micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic metre around you. In that case, considering China’s high levels of PM 2.5, Chinese people should get lung 300% more often than Europeans. In fact, rates of lung cancer in China are somewhat higher than in Europe but certainly not to that degree. So, there's some doubt as to what extent you can extrapolate the research findings onto the ‘field’, i.e. China.
Of course, one might say, we all know that PM 2.5 is pretty bad, isn’t that enough? Is it worth splitting hairs over whether the death toll is as high as 500,000 or just 100,000?
But I would say that’s exactly worth splitting hairs about if you’re working at the highest levels of government. Smog and air pollution is costing our people a lot, and it would be nice to know exactly how high the price is. It doesn’t feel like a particularly good question to ask, in fact, it would be easier just to say 'Smog is our sworn nemesis, down with smog!', and that would certainly make decision-making a lot easier. But if you’re making economic decisions that affect the whole country you might want to hold off. There’s actually not a lot of things that are really ‘priceless’, in the sense that you should never ever consider doing without them. Maybe we can talk about whether clean air is really priceless?
Chai Jing once wrote an essay about the use of DDTs on her blog. In the early days, when the pesticide ‘DDT’ had just been invented, it was considered a very effective means for dealing with all sorts of pests, and that in turn helped deal with rates of malaria. And then in 1962 Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring’, which showed that DDT is a significant contributor to cancer and tends to damage the environment. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Silent Spring is a sort of ‘environmentalist Bible’. In the end, it successfully put the kibosh on the use of DDTs pretty much anywhere in the world.
That sounds great, except when that happened there wasn’t anything nearly as good as DDT to replace it. This meant that pests were once again out of control and rates of malaria in Africa skyrocketed. One outbreak of malaria in South Africa is estimated to have costs the lives of 100,000 people. Thanks to the ban on DDTs, by the year 2000, at least 300 million people had caught malaria who theoretically didn't have to, and today 1 million die from malaria every year, equivalent to 7 Boeing 747s full of children crashing every day.
As a result, some scientists started to say that, actually, maybe we could consider using DDTs again. South Africa agreed in 2003, and the malaria rate there quickly dropped by more than 50%. Afterwards, even the World Health Organisation started saying to African nations that they might want to consider using DDTs once more.
In any case, it is estimated that 20 million people have died because of malaria that wasn't able to be contained due to the DDT ban. If we look at the statistics in the simplest of ways, the number of deaths caused by Rachel Carson’s book is not unlike that of a certain German.
But that’s not to say that the environmentalists among us are wrong. In fact, Chai Jing reporting on DDTs is just an example of how our environmental policy needs to look possible knock-on effects. So, are DDTs bad for the environment? Of course they are. But what if you can save 20 million lives because DDTs are particularly good against malaria-causing pests? Now, we need to ask ourselves, what is worth more? What’s the price of a life? We cannot simply say ‘all DDTs are bad.’ And so it’s not enough to say 'something' damages the environment and be done with it. We need to ask three follow-up questions: 1) Exactly how bad is it for the environment and people? 2) Are other options equally bad? 3) If we don’t use it, will things get worse in some way?
Smog and air pollution is no different. Who’s not afraid of air pollution? Who doesn’t know at this point that it’s really bad for you? But major changes in public policy and resource investment also require a detailed understanding of exactly what changes in policy will do, not vaguely, but item by item, cost benefit versus cost loss. For example, if you want specific policies to target public health in terms of air, why don't we look more at smoking? Science tells us that the effects of smoking on a person's lungs is much more significant than what we know about PM 2.5 particles floating around in the air. In fact, about 60-80% of all cases of lung cancer can be tied to smoking, whereas only about 10% of cases can be similarly tied to general air pollution. In reality, smoking will make you ingest a lot of PM 2.5 particles, with a single cigarette being apparently equivalent to living in air filled with PM 2.5 particles to the tune of 633 micrograms per cubic metre. And the number of people killed in China from smoking-related illnesses is estimated to lie at more than 1.2 million per year.
Some people would say smoking is a choice, and so you can't compare it to generally poor air quality. But is it? In China, about 88% of the population are 'passive smokers' in their home environment, 60% of us are made into 'passive smokers' in public venues, and 30% likewise at work. If you look especially at the effects of second-hand smoke on women, the harm inflicted by second-hand smoke is likely greater here than the harm inflicted by generally poor air quality. In China, about 100,000 people die every year from passive smoking. This figure, by itself, is not estimably smaller than the number of people threatened by the atmospheric effects of coal consumption.
A ban on smoking in public places in China would be hard to implement
You could say that in China today people are really starting to worry about air quality and its effects on children, whereas the reality is that the effects of cigarette smoking are provably much worse and more harmful. Most people wouldn't be able to tell you that levels of PM 2.5 have actually been going down steadily in the last 10 years (actually people just weren't aware of it before, it hasn't become a big issue because it's somehow worse now). At the same time as the PM 2.5 has been improving, the number of people smoking cigarettes regularly has been getting worse, it's on the increase and particularly among young men and women.
But the media buzz is squarely on smog rather than controlling cigarette smoking. From the beginning of 2012, 'smog' has become a topic much loved by those in the media. A cursory search of China's 'Baidu' search engine will tell you that smog gets far more attention than searches relating to smoking and its ill side-effects. In fact, the government has a monopoly on cigarettes and the money from cigarette consumption lines many a pocket, thus the reality is that changing smoking regulations will be a very difficult exercise in frustration. However, the point is that the media is comparatively indifferent to smoking despite there being no apparent reason why this should be the case. Actually, it's downright misleading. I'm not saying we should ignore or downplay the smog issue, but what I am saying is that we should try to be more comprehensive and rational about the actual factors contributing to health issues at a time when smog has become the 'representative' of ill health.
Furthermore, people who trying to direct the course of public affairs can't reduce everything to a black and white state of affairs, with minimal trade-offs and obviously right public policy. For instance, just as with DDTs, we need to talk about whether there are any benefits to DDT use as well as harmful side effects, and whether it's possible the benefits could even offset the harmful side effects, and perhaps even exceed them. This is what's known as a 'trade-off', or a 'cost-benefit analysis'. Past discussions in this country have often lacked a willingness to admit of shades of grey on an issue, issues have tended to become either a 'hundred shades of white' or a 'hundred shades of black' . I had originally hoped that 'Under the Dome' would present a deeper, more objective examination of the costs and benefits of 'smog-related industries' in China's fast-developing economy, but there wasn't much examination of other aspects of the issue.
In the production, you can make out very strongly a particular opinion on the issue. Chai Jing forbids her daughter to leave the apartment, forbids her from going out to face the grey, polluted sky. Will this city hurt you? The answer is: 'It will'. The problem is that it will also make it up to you in other ways. Looking at PM 2.5 levels, Yunnan should be classified as the second cleanest city in the country in terms of air. Beijing would be the second worst. But, actually, in terms of life expectancy, Beijing still leads Yunnan. Beijing has the second highest level of life expectancy in the country, at 80.18 years on average. Whereas Yunnan has the second worst rate, at 69.54 years on average. This is why economic development and the better medicine that money can buy is such a good thing. It's so good, that it can even offset the human cost that a polluted environment can inflict.
If I had a choice, I would rather let my kids live in smoggy Beijing than in clear-sky, clean-water Yunnan. For, luck permitting, they have a better chance of living another 10 years there.
It's obvious that most people make the same choice. They put up with the smog and the unreasonably high real estate prices. You can see how a never-ending stream of immigrants to Beijing have multiplied the population of the city by a factor of 1.5 in the last 10 years. Don't they know that smog is bad for their health? They know, of course they know, but they are willing to make a trade-off. They're saying that putting up with smog and air pollution is worth it in comparison to whatever other options they may get on the table.
I've always looked forward to having a public debate on whether people would be willing to sacrifice air quality for the sake of economic development that is not part of an impassioned, one-sided analysis where the environment is given an infinitely high value or GDP/growth is given an infinitely high value. In economic terms, nothing is truly of infinite value, or, to put it another way, nothing is worth expending an unlimited amount of resources in acquiring. Our economic policies in this country should likewise admit that both considerations are of value. Some people say that we're sacrificing our health for the sake of economic development, and how pointless is that? But the problem with that is that economic development is a prerequisite to health, wellbeing, and a long life.
Or to rephrase the above, economic development is one of the most important factors determining the length of an average person's life in a locale. The positive effects on 'health' of a high GDP is vastly greater than the ill effects on health of pollution. In provinces where economic development has been slow, and people subsist in a poorer economic environment, the lifespan of the average person takes a huge cut, regardless of how great the air is around them, and their situation is worse than for people in big cities with high rates of economic development but terrible air. In China, the average lifespan for a person living in the east is usually several years more than for a 'west Chineser'. In fact, there is a direct correlation between levels of PM 2.5 and average lifespans: the higher your levels of PM 2.5, the more likely you are to live longer. Of course, this isn't to say that PM 2.5 is helpful, rather that places with higher PM 2.5 levels tend to also be places that are more economically developed, and that is actually better for your health than smog is bad for it.
At a time when smog creeps across the sky of Beijing on a regular basis, the fact is that it's still got one of the highest life expectancy rates of any city in China
In terms of the relationship between economic development and life expectancy throughout China, we can roughly estimate that for every 1000 Yuan rise in average incomes in a particular place in China, you also see a 0.3 year increase in average life expectancy there as well. What about the effects of smog? One scientist published an analysis estimating that the burning of coal in north China probably takes an average of 5.5 years off the average person's life there. This figure is not widely accepted. Recently another analysis has estimated that PM 2.5 levels have caused the life expectancy rate in 74 cities in China to go down by 1.48 years on average.
If you compare these two figures, if you treat them as reliable, then you've got quite an interesting conclusion. And that is that 'smog' is worth it if it means getting an increase in per capita income for a city by 5000 Yuan (according to a 2014 report on China's GDP). However, conversely, if tackling smog means taking more than 5000 Yuan off the average person's income, then it wouldn't be worth it. In fact, even from the 'health-orientated' point-of-view, that wouldn't actually do anything. Ironically, giving resources up for the environment might have a negative effect on your 'medical expenditure powers', thus actually decreasing average lifespans in a city.
Of course, in all of this calculating it seems that the figures and logic are not especially rigorous, and that's because, and this is the point I'm trying to put forward here, solving smog/air pollution should be decided on the basis of economic cost-benefit analysis and not a shouting match between industrialists and environmentalists. Profit and loss also can't be just about money, that would be a bit crass, but also the human costs thereof. Smog causes people to die young, that's an example of a human cost. But if we take away thousands upon thousands of jobs in an effort to eradicate smog, is that not also taking away human life? Recently, The Lancet Medical Journal published an essay arguing that the unemployment rate is a major contributing factor to the suicide rate in a given place, and that after a survey of 63 countries, they estimated that about 45,000 people probably commit suicide every year due to unemployment related issues. So perhaps we should be asking ourselves, are we not sacrificing lives in order to save them? And how many? This is a harsh reality of macro policy-making.
Again, smog is a side-effect of China's speedy drive towards industrialisation and urbanisation. Under the Dome questions the urbanisation process, but is China really particularly urbanised? Of course not. In 2014, only 54.77% of Chinese people were living in an urban environment, which lags far behind Western countries. Urbanisation has also not just affected the wallets of Chinese people but also their survival. 20 years ago, there was a particularly high rate of suicide for females living in the countryside, at one point attracting world wide attention. With China's fast urbanisation, China's female suicide rate also quickly decreased, from 30 people per 100,000 to today's rate of less than 10 suicides per 100,000. Simply looking at this statistic, urbanisation is saving about 6,500 females every year. As we complain about the environment aftereffects of urbanisation in terms of pollution, perhaps we should also think about what lives it has saved.
Is there more? There is. At the moment 16 million people are born in China every year, and the male-female ratio has reached an alarming 1:17 males for every 1 female. This in turn has led to the so-called 'bachelordom crisis' among Chinese males, which has become a talking point in news and current affairs. The question is, behind the scenes, just how many female embryos are never born? If we imagine that the typical male-female ratio is 1.06 males for every 1 female, then it is easy to conclude that the 'patriarchal' culture here is most probably 'killing' more than about 80,000 female babies every year ('killing' also including abortion). How should we deal with this massive loss of life? Should we patiently wait for people's backward values and outdated thinking to change naturally? Perhaps we should follow Chai Jing's lead and seize the day, not waiting for change or making excuses for the present system any longer. In fact, urbanisation is the most effective method of dealing with patriarchal cultural values, and by promoting speedy urbanisation in China, we can save the lives of about 80,000 baby girls every year. But if this urbanisation worsens the environment, then is it still worth doing?
Baby girls are often deliberately aborted or abandoned
Perhaps others might say, one thing 'Under the Dome' is trying to tell us is that increases in GDP don't necessarily mean pollution, nor does economic development always imply smog. But on this point, I would have to say that Chai Jing hasn't convinced me. It's so tempting, so ideal, such a perfect solution. I've seen too many people promise utopian arrangements, making me wary of such ideas. I'm going to be cautious in examining her argument here. History tells us that when the people making policy as dyed-in-the-wool idealists, the results will not be pretty.
In the film, what I can get out of it would be the following several suggestions, the sum of them being: first of all, make the law abundantly clear, strengthen the powers of environmental agencies, enforce the law properly. I wholeheartedly agree. But we still can't be sure of the relationship between doing that and the economy. What we can get from the movie is just that a lot of small steel manufacturers are finding it hard to grind out a profit, and that if environmental protections were increased then they would inevitably go bust, factory by factory. And so, simply putting a stop to government subsidies for those industries should be enough to take out more than a few of such economically backward companies. And then, we would automatically get a cleaner environment along with plenty of economic growth, and that a better kind of economic growth. But as to whether or not the new industries thereby created would be able to provide jobs for the number of people currently looking, how long they would take to set up, and whether or not there really is that much economic demand to make this plan workable, we can't know really at this point in time. Looking at the history of economic restructuring in Europe, it seems like there's not a lot of reason to think it will be easy. Of course, that's a whole 'nother discussion, which I won't start right now.
Secondly, if we're going to change our energy system, well, I can only say that I am both dumbfounded and impressed at the same time. As a country with more coal than oil deposits, Chai Jing surprisingly suggests that China give up it's reliance on coal, and turn to oil, which will require significant reliance on foreign oil and natural gas imports. But at what cost? How feasible is that? We didn't get the answers. Of course, I can admit, this kind of massive problem cannot be conclusively solved in a short film. But the film's throwaway lines outlining this massive plan is a bit much. First of all, there's the claim that as soon as the 'Big Three Oil' monopoly is broken, then the oil industry will suddenly become much more innovative, produce better quality products, and decrease costs. I'm not going to go and speculate as to whether this is practicable for the current 'setup' in our economy, and I don't oppose breaking up monopolies in the oil industry, but what I am skeptical about is whether, after breaking up said monopolies, the industry really will naturally rise to greater heights of innovation and excellence. Chai Jing seems to have forgotten that the coal industry she strongly opposes is in fact a former monopoly which is now a very competitive field. So why is the quality of our coal getting worse and worse? Why isn't there much innovation?
Shall China move from the 'coal age' to the 'oil age'?
Secondly, there's the view that after we break up the monopolies, we will quickly be able to track down new oil and natural gas deposits, thus increasing our supply of both many fold. This sounds like a fantastic idea worthy of the Great Leap Forward, but what is the basis for thinking this, exactly? I couldn't find any. But 'Under the Dome' goes on to use England as proof-of-concept. Apparently, after the Great Smog disaster in London in 1952, there was a massive, speedy restructuring from coal-based power sources to oil-based power sources, and this worked wonders for the local environment. I'm not going to disagree with this point, but 'Under the Dome' doesn't mention that although England passed a Clean Air Act in 1956, the proportion of oil used in power generation didn't go up hugely until the 1970s, after the discovery of the North Sea oil reserves. Only then did the use of oil skyrocket. And so, putting our energy policy onto the discovery of as-yet undiscovered and unknown oil or natural gas reserves seems a bit unreliable to me. And so with some embarrassment I'd like to ask everyone to wait until Chai Jing provides more evidence of said reserves before accepting this point.
In reality, looking at the current situation, regardless of whether we use coal or oil, it's not going to have a substantial impact on the air pollution issue. Our country's coal plants are governed by quite tight and strict regulations, and it's just their proper and strict implementation that stands in the way of the environment. In reality, right now, the proportion of coal versus other power sources in England's energy network is actually steadily rising. So I think the reality is that tackling smog, doesn't necessarily mean giving up all coal. One reasonably effective thing we can do is close down some of the small electrical power stations and leave relatively bigger, and less numerous, power stations alone under tight supervision - real and environmentally effective supervision. In principle, it's still a matter of cost. As for 'Under the Dome', it doesn't mention clean energy solutions, such as hydraulic, wind, nuclear, and solar power, and of course these can be considered as well.
But this doesn't solve the questions I raised earlier, that is to say, 'Under the Dome' hasn't given reliable evidence to show that China is able to both promote economic growth as well as cut pollution significantly at the same time. And as a result, I wholeheartedly applaud Chai Jing's call to action, her efforts and her success in raising the profile of environmental problems to millions. This is obviously fantastic. But as for her overarching point-of-view, I'm still not convinced. In terms of public policy discussions, I would have hoped to have seen more detailed discussions of how to solve smog with respect to manufacturing and economic costs, and I'd hope that the public would also take a look at this aspect of the problem as well, rather than simply trying to throw out the present system under the hidden assumption that getting rid of smog is worth anything and everything.
In conclusion, it's only when people let go of their strong feelings on this issue and evaluate it in a purely rational way, that we can really start to think about practical ways to solve these problems.
To see Chai Jing's world famous documentary with English subtitles, the YouTube video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6X2uwlQGQM